Will Future Generations Call Obama The ‘Environmental President’ Or An Abject Failure?


This is a guest post by Joe Romm, cross-posted from ClimateProgress with permission. 

It’s tempting to grade the President on a curve, but future generations won’t – if we destroy the livable climate they’ll need to feed 9 billion people.

“History does not forgive us our national mistakes because they are explicable in terms of our domestic politics…. A nation which excuses its own failures by the sacred untouchableness of its own habits can excuse itself into complete disaster.” – George Kennan, 1951.

c_07252010.gif Readers have asked my opinion of Jonathan Chait’s New York magazine column: “Obama Might Actually Be the Environmental President.” His sub-hed tells the tale:

His climate-change policy has been an abject failure, says Al Gore and just about everyone else. They’re wrong. Here’s why.


It’s quite safe to say that, at the very least, it is wildly premature to say Obama hasn’t been an abject failure and pretty safe to say that he is – at least from the perspective of future generations and history’s judgment. That was the point of my election night post, “Obama Wins Reelection, Now Must Become A Climate Hawk To Avoid Dust-Bin Of History, Dust Bowl For America.”

While I usually agree with Grist’s inimitable climate hawk, Dave Roberts, I’m not down with, “Seems to me Chait mostly gets it right.” Like Chait, Roberts wants to grade Obama on a curve, “The question for me is whether Obama has been a success compared to what was (and is) possible.”

As I’ll discuss below, I think Obama is a failure on those grounds, too. But it can’t be repeated too often that Obama’s legacy will be determined primarily by whether we avert catastrophic climate change.

If we don’t, then Obama — indeed, the entire political system, the media and the intelligentsia, heck, all of us — will be seen as failures, and rightfully so. As a 2012 PricewaterhouseCoopers report makes clear, anything other than aggressive efforts to slash carbon pollution starting ASAP likely means 7°F to 11°F warming globally by 2100 (with more warming next century). That would cause substantially higher warming over most of the U.S. It would leave much of the “breakbasket of the world” (and indeed much of the world’s arable and habitable land) in Dust Bowl conditions much worse than this nation has ever known. By mid-century, the nation and the world will be engaged in a desperate multi-decade effort to figure out how to feed nine billion people on a planet whose carrying capacity has been gutted.

If we don’t stop climate catastrophe, then calling Obama the “environmental president” because of all his other, well-documented environmental accomplishments is like, well, the old line, “Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

The point of Kennan’s quote above is that history doesn’t grade us on a curve. And in this case, we’d be graded for a millenium of multiple, simultaneous, ever-worsening, irreversible disasters foisted on future generations because we were too greedy and myopic to devote even a small fraction of our wealth to getting off of carbon a few decades sooner than we were forced to anyway! Not exactly “the greatest generation.”

Here is the only curve future generations will grade us on if we allow it to happen, if we destroy the stable climate of the past 11,000 years that enabled modern civilization:

Temperature change over past 11,300 years (in blue, via Science, 2013) plus projected warming this century on humanity’s current emissions path (in red, via recent literature).

But even if we ignore Kennan and take the narrow, short-term perspective – which, it must be pointed out, is the kind of thinking that has gotten us into this mess – and try to imagine what Obama could have done differently, he still can only get an incomplete (that could convert to a D at best, and an F- in most plausible scenarios).

The entire premise of Chait’s piece is that the failure to pass a climate bill isn’t fatal to Obama’s legacy because, near the end of his 8-year presidency, Obama is going to embrace tough carbon pollution standards for existing power plants along the lines of what the Natural Resources Defense Council has proposed (see here). Modified rapture!

Now I don’t think one can discount the fact that using the EPA to deal with carbon opens the door to significant delay through the courts. Worse, if the Republicans can ever figure out how to win the presidency again, they could slow, stop, or roll back the whole thing.

And why wouldn’t the GOP? Team Obama’s catastrophic climate silence – a silence his White House inanely imposed on much of the progressive and environmental establishment back in 2009 (see here) – coupled with his utter failure to push hard for a Senate vote, has turned a winning political “wedge” issue into something that is mistakenly perceived to be a political loser by much of the political establishment. His embrace of an “all of the above” energy strategy, which is to say no strategy at all, has legitimized a massive expansion of fossil fuel production – and export.

No, I’m not overselling what one man can achieve – I’m simply not ignoring the damage done by an entire administration grotesquely indifferent to – and incompetent at – climate messaging. As Prof. Robert Brulle, one of the country’s leading experts on the environmental movement, put it, “By failing to even rhetorically address climate change, Obama is mortgaging our future and further delaying the necessary work to build a political consensus for real action.”

We are on the brink of losing yet another full 8 years that could have been used to inform the American public about what’s happening now, the bad stuff coming that we can’t stop, and what needs to be done now to avoid the really catastrophic stuff we can.

Churchillian leadership on climate may not be a sufficient condition for avoiding the climate catastrophe, but it is almost certainly a necessary one.

Given that climate change is in fact an existential threat to the nation and modern civilization, I also don’t think that we can ignore the myriad other failures by Obama beyond his failure to use the bully pulpit. Here are four:

  • Pushing health care reform first when the climate bill was already moving and far more important for the future of the nation and the world.
  • Pushing health care reform in such an incompetent fashion it took a full year, lost public support for that reform and sweeping pieces of legislation in general, energized the opposition, and generally further poisoned a poisonous political atmosphere.
  • Failing to insist that the climate bill be able to be passed through the reconciliation process, which requires only 51 votes and prevents a filibuster — in retrospect, this was almost certainly the single biggest strategic mistake (though not Obama’s alone). Note that this would mostly likely have required team Obama to not insist health care be able to pass through reconciliation.
  • Never keeping Democratic Senators in line, and, for instance, never making clear that there was definitely going to be a vote on the climate bill, as they knew there would be for health care. This allowed moderate Democrats to publicly bad-mouth the bill and say that there was no path to 60 votes, which essentially sent the message to moderate Republicans crucial to the bill’s passage that they would be taking a massive political risk supporting any bill.

Again, the net effect of the political incompetence and the messaging failure has been to turn the issue of the century into a virtual non-issue, which in turn has allowed the major media to all but ignore it, too.

But let’s imagine Obama gets a spine, fixes the EPA rules for new power plants, and then adopts rules for existing power plants that lead to a 17% (or greater) reduction in CO2 emissions by 2020 (versus 2005 levels), which is what he offered before the 2009 global talks in Copenhagen. Obama would still need to undo the damage done to the international negotiation process by his climate silence and failure to pass a climate bill.

Avoiding catastrophe requires a global deal with teeth in 2015 – otherwise America’s modest “reduction” in carbon emissions will mean nothing. I put “reduction” in quotes because when you factor in our trade deficit with China (and others) in manufactured goods, it just turns out we’ve been outsourcing our CO2 emissions. Over the past two decades, we have been buying more and more of our products from coal-intensive China – and, on top of that, we’ve been selling China our surplus coal!

Yes, America’s coal use is dropping, but don’t worry, the “environmental President” has overseen the largest increase in U.S. coal exports in history (see “2012 U.S. Coal Exports Reach Record High”)! One final point – on the Keystone XL pipeline. Killing it may not be a sufficient condition for the “environmental President” to lead the way on preventing a climate catastrophe, but it is almost certainly necessary one.

Approving the pipeline would be a deep self-inflicted wound on the Obama administration, greater than anything else he has done,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club and a leader of the antipipeline movement. “This was not inherited from the Bush administration and it can’t be passed off to his successor. It really is Obama’s alone. Whatever damage the decision would do to the environmental movement pales in comparison to the damage it would do to his own legacy.”

Of course, IF Obama could approve Keystone but still achieve serious domestic reductions AND a global deal that put the world onto a non-catastrophic path (i.e near 2°C total warming or less), then history might still judge him the “environmental president.” But on that path, the Keystone pipeline would be a superfluous waste of resources (at best), since it is a gateway to one of the many huge pools of carbon-intensive fuel most of which must be left in the ground on the 2C path.

The fact that our hypothetical Obama could, if he uses EPA authority in a serious fashion, go to the world’s other big emitters and commit to meeting his 17% pledge is a necessary minimum condition to achieve a climate agreement — but it is not sufficient. Obama needs some moral standing, he needs to be able to demonstrate to the world the U.S. understands that far deeper cuts are needed post-2020 and that means not sticking new spigots into huge, dirty carbon pools like the tar sands.

If Obama truly were the “environmental president” then Keystone would be a very, very easy decision for him.


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